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Kanye West and the Science of Cancel Culture

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Musician and cultural icon Kanye West has faced enormous backlash after a series of antisemitic comments that followed months of erratic, controversial behavior. West’s behavior landed him in hot water, prompting many companies to sever their business ties with the rapper. Has he been effectively canceled by the world of social media?

And what does it mean for public figures when they’re canceled? How about when regular, non-famous people are faced with being shunned for their beliefs or actions? On this episode of RadioEd, Emma chats with Michael Karson, a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, and Demi Lawrence, a staff reporter at the Portland Business Journal, breaking down the Kanye West scandal and delve into the history and psychology of cancel culture.

Show Notes

Michael Karson is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, where he teaches clinical and forensic psychology. Karson is affiliated with the American Psychological Association and the Colorado Psychology Association. He frequently blogs about cancel culture.

Demi Lawrence is a staff reporter at the Portland Business Journal, where she covers footwear and apparel. Her recent work centers on Adidas and its branding, as well as the company’s former relationship with Kanye West.

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Transcript

Transcript

Matt Meyer:

You're listening to RadioEd...

Emma Atkinson:

The University of Denver podcast...

Matt Meyer:

We're your hosts, Matt Meyer...

Emma Atkinson:

and Emma Atkinson...

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Kanye West is a name synonymous with many things: Music, fashion, art and pop culture. But in the last few years, the artist and designer has become known for more controversial things—and more specifically, for his comments about politics, race and minority groups.

Kanye has been open about his struggles with mental health, specifically bipolar disorder, and has attributed some of his behavior and language to the condition. But criticism about Kanye has mounted in the last few months, with some calling several of his most controversial comments antisemitic and inexcusable. He’s lost big partnerships, damaged his personal brand, and many have called upon others to stop listening to his music.

Has it reached the point where pop culture and society have canceled Kanye West?

Today on RadioEd, we’re diving deep into the history of cancel culture and how it relates to the way we treat and interact with public figures—and each other. We’ll connect with DU psychology professor Michael Karson about cancel culture and stigma.

But first, let’s chat about Kanye—or “Ye,” as he sometimes calls himself. I talked to journalist Demi Lawrence about the “Kanye timeline,” as we’ll call it.

Demi Lawrence: 

I'm a footwear and apparel industry reporter in Portland, Oregon, for the Portland Business Journal.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Lawrence has been covering Kanye’s misadventures with the sportswear giant Adidas for quite some time. By nature, that means she’s also keyed in to Kanye’s other business ventures and his behavior on social media.

Demi Lawrence: 

So obviously, Kanye West has been controversial for quite some time now, for the last few years. The first one that I can really think of when I think back on his history is in like, 2016. I think him siding with Trump and you know, campaigning with him, saying at one point that slavery was a choice that black Americans made, things like that.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

But Kanye’s most recent scandal, at least as it relates to Adidas, started nearly two months ago, when he started making posts critical of the company and its then-CEO, Casper Worstead.

Demi Lawrence: 

But really, it came into the limelight for I'd say popular culture, social media, when he went to the Paris Fashion Week, wore the white lives matter tee with Candace Owens. Then after that went on several podcasts, went on social media saying several very disturbing antisemitic comments. So really, it kind of depends on, you know, if you're looking at Kanye West scandals as a whole, or if you're looking at the more recent one, you could go back as far as 2016, if you really wanted to.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Kanye’s most recent antisemitic comments began with an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where he perpetuated racist conspiracy theories about Jewish people and the Jewish identity.

This appearance was followed by antisemitic social media posts on Instagram and Twitter, both of which have since been removed. The backlash was immediate—and had a very real effect on the companies that were working with him.

Demi Lawrence:

The public outcry, I think, went from folks being concerned and trying to just engage with him. And then it went, Okay, he's kind of he's doing as he's for real. He's doing his own thing. He's serious about this. Now, as a public, we need to go towards these companies and say, hey, this person is saying some really harmful things doing some really harmful actions. Where do you stand on this? And so I think the public outcry shifted a little bit after folks realized that they couldn't change kind of what he was doing. He didn't want to be educated, he didn't want to be helped. And so it shifted over to these companies who were giving him this money for these partnerships, who were giving him clout, who were giving him a public sphere in which to sell these products to advertise himself and be connected with them.

Emma Atkinson: 

Right, right. And that's kind of a two-pronged response. Right? You have the public outcry, and then you have the response of these companies that work with him. So I'd love to get into some of your reporting, what consequences did Adidas face you know, before parting ways with him as a direct result of his comments and behavior?

Demi Lawrence: 

Yeah, I did a lot of reporting on that. And it was super interesting to me, because they were the last company major company to break ties with him. I remember like, I think five days or so before Adidas announced that they were going to actually cut ties, they just said they were considering it for I think like two and a half, three weeks, which in the world of social media now is so long, you have to think about how constant social media is—two and a half weeks may as well be two and a half months. Like it's just such a different world we live in.

And so Balenciaga dropped him first, several of the companies, Gap dropped him first, [Adidas] was the last company. So a lot of the feedback they were getting, I'm pretty sure their stock tanked. That's going along with a lot of other issues that are happening in the industry right now. So one could put the blame on those other issues that are happening, but their continuation of their partnership with Kanye, after all of this, definitely attributed to that. A lot of backlash on social media, a lot of, you know, advocacy groups for Jewish community and things like that saying, hey, Adidas, what are you doing.

And it also doesn't help the fact that Adidas is a German company. And when you think about antisemitism and things like that, people will talk on social media. And that's what began to happen with a lot of the spheres that I was in whether or not they meant it that way, or whether or not that was even, you know, remotely related, you can't help what's going to happen on social media. Like I said, it moves like that it moves so quickly. So they faced a lot of brand damage, and things like that; stock issues as well.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Kanye and his actions and comments have been widely condemned—by national Jewish advocacy organizations, his own business partners, educational institutions and even Shaquille O’Neal, not to mention thousands of millions of people on social media. He’s lost his billionaire status and some speculate his erratic behavior played a part in his recent divorce from Kim Kardashian.

It’s something we’re all taught as little kids, right? When you mess up, there are consequences. And hopefully, most of us can agree that things like racism, sexism and antisemitism are wrong and have no place in a just world.

But in this grand debate about cancel culture, some people are asking, at what point do consequences go too far? How do you know when someone—a public figure or a regular person—has been punished enough? Or is there no limit to how extreme the societal alienation can be?

Michael Karson: 

To me our species is, by far the most vicious, aggressive and violent species. I like to say, like even a shark will leave you alone if you're not messing with it. A bear will leave you alone if it's not hungry or threatened. But a human will kill you for sport.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

That’s Michael Karson, a University of Denver professor of psychology. He writes about cancel culture and studies how it relates to the psychological concept of stigma.

So why are humans, unlike bears and sharks, so quick to be, effectively, violent toward one another? Why are we so quick to cancel each other? Karson says it might very well be baked into our DNA.

Michael Karson: 

Apparently, chimpanzees form tribes and attack members of other tribes. And it kind of helps with tribal cohesion. And I think we do something similar; we are constantly looking for a common enemy, and just being vicious about them. So to me, all cultures are cancel cultures, all cultures have rules about if you if you do certain things, you'll be excommunicated, or, you know what I forget the word, silenced or, you know, put out or whatever, and then everybody else will hate them.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Karson says philosopher Frederick Nietzsche might have one explanation.

Michael Karson: 

You know, it's a pretty out there idea, but one that I resonate with nature's which is, Nietzsche says that one of the ways we found to live together is by creating hierarchies, and, you know, pecking orders. That's how apparently chickens managed to live together as they form a pecking order. And Nietzsche says that the way we form pecking orders is we invented morality. And morality enables us to step on other people's necks and say, ‘We're better than they are.’ And then, you know, there's a whole history of using morality as a justification for violence, whether it's war between countries or war between religions or, or whatever. So I yeah, I feel like managing and harnessing the inherent propensity for violence is an important part of any culture, and I think most people would agree that the United States is in a low point since the Civil War, in being able to do that.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

While the phrase ‘cancel culture’ is relatively new to our cultural zeitgeist, the phenomenon certainly isn’t. Karson argues that public shaming due to a person’s (or monkey’s) actions, behaviors or beliefs has been around since the beginning. But social media and political divisiveness mean that cancel culture is perhaps stronger and more prevalent now than ever before.

Michael Karson: 

I relate it partly to the death of expertise. You know, Kanye saying this thing about Jews, to me, is it on a continuum with then Kyrie Irving wrote something and supported him. Kyrie Irving's a professional basketball player.

And I remember it was only a couple of years ago that there were some very famous NBA players who were saying that the earth is flat. And, you know, ‘how do I know that the Earth is round, or spherical, because from as far as I can see, it's flat.’ And this is the this is the attitude that gets me is, you know, that I feel like we've lost our way on is that ‘what I see is more privileged than a shared conversation aimed at getting the truth can ever get to.’ And it can lead to very bad ideas, including some of those expressed by Kanye. And if we can't share understanding about how truth is narrowed down, or how disputes are resolved, you know, what the rules of debate are or anything, then that's a much bigger problem to me, then what happens to one person who spouts off something hateful?

Emma Atkinson (VO):

So we’ve got the death of expertise, as Karson calls it. We’ve got the use of morality to justify public shaming. But there’s one other, major aspect of today’s cancel culture that we can’t ignore: Social media.

Michael Karson: 

Social media is really good at making you feel like everybody agrees with you. Because, you know, your feed is curated in a way that it makes it makes you think everybody, yeah, like everybody shows the same opinion you do. So that I think that's one aspect of social media that's relevant.

Another one I really think is relevant is, if you want to cancel somebody, you've got everything they ever did, or said, since they were 12 years old, you can find something usually there to deal with. And then you can cancel them completely with social media, and in a way, where, before social media, I think like if you got canceled at work, you quit your job, and you get a new job. But now everything follows you because you can be found on social media; your history is on Google. So I often think about that.

I know, this is a much more complicated story than was reported. But the woman who called the police on the black guy about the dog in Central Park, I think about how horrible her life must be because of one incident. And I'm not commenting on that, what actually happened, because I know there's various versions of that. But even if it was as bad as it looked, to begin with, there's nowhere to hide now. I mean, she can't, you know, just pack up and move to a different city she can't, she'd really have to, like go into witness protection. And that's because of social media.

And so it's not just it's easier to completely cancel somebody but it's easy to feel completely canceled. And then you know, you every interaction you have, it seems like it's in your face again. So I think social media has made it much more pervasive and comprehensive, this idea of canceling somebody.

Emma Atkinson: 

If social media went away today, All of it, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, you know, everything. What do you think would be the effect on this on this culture of cancellation and how people interact with each other in such a vitriolic way?

Michael Karson: 

Yeah, I think it'd be, on that one issue, it'd be very beneficial. Of course, it's just a pipe dream. But you would then have have to spend more time with people who don't agree with you about everything. And you would have less efficient ways to make the people you disagree with disappear. So you know, when when the people you run into are your neighbors, and the people, your colleagues, you can't just make them disappear. Although I do feel like something that's happening a lot lately is people are acting like they can make their colleagues and neighbors disappear in the same way that you can just block somebody on Facebook. And wishing they would that I think the world's a better place when we have to deal with each other, then well, we can make each other disappear.

Emma Atkinson (VO): It’s one thing to cancel a public figure. You stop consuming their content or their art, you unfollow them, you stop buying their albums and watching their movies. You make them disappear from your life. But what happens, as Karson says, when you want to disappear someone you know for something they’ve done or said?

It all goes back to the monkeys.

Michael Karson: 

The sense of being shunned is the worst thing you can do to a social animal. And so when we are threatened with being shunned, it's very powerful and very painful. And everyone knows what it's like; every human knows what it's like to be stigmatized. They know what it's like not to have power. And they know what it's like to be shunned.

And every one of us knows how desperately we fought to get back to not being that kid in middle school or not being the person in our family who isn't using the utensils correctly, if that's what your family thinks is important, and how powerfully we'll fight, not to be in that role. And that's what happens with this cancellation thing. And I think one of the things driving it is that when we won't, you know, it's the same as middle school or what I imagine happens in sororities and fraternities. But if you can shun someone else, it gives you this more consolidated feeling of being in the in group. And then, and I think that, you know, makes people feel better.

Emma Atkinson: 

So something I'm interested in also is that, if you were to ask somebody who was participating in active cancellation of another person, they would say that they're doing it in the name of, of justice, and they would say, this is right, this is right, this is moral, kind of how we touched on earlier. Are there any, are there any benefits truly—sociologically—to this practice of cancellation?

Michael Karson: 

Well, it can create in group coherence, but there's no end to it. And then you start canceling each other, and then you realize that you're cancelable. And then you start to hide your own thoughts and feelings, and then you it leads to, or can lead to either totalitarianism or more likely splintering, where you're only with people who agree with you on everything, except that they just hide the things they don't agree about. So yeah, it's not healthy.

I'm not a sociologist, I feel like I should make that clear. But you know, famous sociologist, Victor Turner talks about social dramas. You know, somebody commits a breach, and then people go to war over the breach internally. And it can lead to complete schisms between groups of people, or they can finally reunite by adopting common values or reminding themselves of common values.

And my sense right now is that America really wants to find common values. But there seems like there are, you know, the traditional ones, like the Bill of Rights, free speech, all these have become weaponized and politicized. So even the idea of free and fair elections used to be, you know, our common value like whoever wins, they were picked by other Americans, and now we don't, we don't even have that.

Emma Atkinson: 

So this might be this might be a question that nobody can answer. How do you find those common values? How do you—what is the work that you have to do to get there?

Michael Karson: 

You know, historically, they've been historical. But for some reason, that's not working very well now. I wish there, you know, if I can pick a common value, it would be it's better not to hate people than it is to hate people. And you know, that I feel like our natural aggression is easier for us to live with together, when it doesn't devolve into absolute hatred. And by that, I mean, complete demonization and villainization of the objects of our aggression. And, yeah, I don't have an answer. But it used to be, you know, like the church had the authority to step up and say, Well, you know, the 10 commandments are the, the Sermon on the Mount, these are the things we all agree on. And of course, not everybody agreed, but they had the authority to step up and then and then I don't think there's any shared sense of that right now.

Emma Atkinson (VO): Real quick, before we wrap up, let’s touch on stigma again. Karson says stigma plays a huge part in cancel culture—and while stigma is generally known to be a negative thing, he says it’s can actually be a really important function of society—sometimes.

Michael Karson: 

You have certain expectations of the pilot of the aircraft you're getting on, you really don't want to know that, you know, this is the first time they've ever flown by themselves, for example. So the function of stigma as a good thing, and society helps us understand why it's so persistent.

And then the problem with sigma is that we started attributing it in situations where it doesn't apply. So, you know, important example of that is, you know, women were just being read as a woman was a stigma, meaning you couldn't do important jobs, you couldn't do. CEO, surgeon, whatever. So that's a you know, all, you know, bigotry is a good example of how stigma can be weaponized against the class of people.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Now let’s think about stigma as it relates to cancel culture. It’s what gives you a bad taste in your mouth.

Michael Karson: 

Can you watch a Woody Allen film now without thinking about the fact that he fundamentally married a daughter figure? Maybe you can't, maybe you can't. But I think that what's happening now with social media is it's really hard to listen to Kanye music now and not think about antisemitic comments.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Thanks again to our guests, reporter Demi Lawrence and University of Denver professor of psychology Michael Karson. For more information on their work and the sources used in this episode, check out our show notes at du.edu/radioed. Tamara Chapman is our managing editor. Debora Rocha is our production assistant. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I’m Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.